Jay Robin Sparrow, a varsity wrestler at Pinole Valley High School in the early 1970s, became a pigeon-racing champion after a car accident left him a quadriplegic at 19.
Sparrow twice won the Hank Vernazza Classic 600, the longest and most prestigious race on the calendar of the Martinez Racing Pigeon Club: with Danielle in 1992 and Stella in 1998.
Sparrow took up pigeon racing in 1989 and soon became an ardent student of the sport.
"He reads so much and reviews all of the current videos, that he is a virtual and willing fountain of wealthy pigeon information," said Storm Goranson, writing in the February 1991 issue of American Racing Pigeon News.
"Rock'n Robin," as he was known in pigeon-racing circles, died Oct. 17 at his Pinole home, just shy of his 54th birthday.
The 1973 Pinole Valley High graduate worked as a team with his mother, Marjo Sparrow, whom he sometimes referred to as "my hands and my feet."
For the Vernazza 600, the pigeons travel by truck to Idaho and fly back home to the Bay Area.
"It would be nice to fly over roads, over mountains, over fields," Sparrow said in 1997. "Bein' up in the air, with a bunch of other birds. Just doin' it.
"Sometimes I wish I were a pigeon."
Sharon Farrell, a former coordinator of Pinole Cable TV, captured that wistful thought in the title of her 1997 documentary, "With Wings to Fly."
Sparrow won his last race, a 500, in 2005. Shortly after, he went on a respirator and gave away his birds.
"Things kind of went downhill," Marjo said. "He didn't even get his diploma," or race winner's certificate.
Sparrow's life after the accident is a story of triumph over almost unbelievable hardships as well as a reflection of the randomness of fate — some might say unfairness, but not the Sparrow family, whose faith in God's wisdom is strong. Marjo alluded, and then just briefly, to a few of the trials: the many surgeries and other frequent and medical interventions; the 24-hour care; Jay Robin's allergy to the plastic of his tracheotomy tube, to name just a handful.
With a vestige of movement in his left arm, Jay Robin could pull his hand just enough to activate the toggle switch on his wheelchair, until a stroke about 10 years ago deprived him of that last bit of arm motion, leaving him to use a "sip-and-puff," breath-activated control.
Jay Robin's condition "was a tragedy, but in a lot of ways, it was a blessing to a lot of people," said his father, Jay Robert Sparrow. "The Good Lord put us on Earth for only one reason: help our fellow man. That's what Robin did.
"He was paralyzed for a reason. He inspired everybody around him."
"Against all odds, he lived a rich and beautiful life," said Jay Robin's sister, Kathy Roberson.
Jay Robin would go to schools to talk to kids, who often would ask why he was in a wheelchair.
"He told them, because he got in a car with a drunken driver," his father said.
On Nov. 11, 1974, Jay Robin was the designated driver as he and a friend headed out in the friend's car for a night on the town, he said in a 1997 interview. Early that evening, Jay Robin stopped at a convenience store; when he came out, the friend, who was drunk, was behind the wheel and refused to budge.
A few blocks away, on Shawn Drive in unincorporated Tara Hills, on the way to dropping off Jay Robin at his girlfriend's house, the friend slammed into the back of a parked pickup truck, wedging the car's passenger side under the bed of the truck, crushing Jay Robin's spine at the neck. The driver was not hurt.
"They thought of sending him home in an iron lung, but eventually things improved," Marjo said.
"He lived almost 35 years as a quad — that's unheard of, for all practical purposes," said his father. "It's because of his brothers, his sisters ... Family is everything."
One day last week, Marjo, still hobbled by a fall she took about seven years ago, surveyed the yard of the family's Marlesta Road home, with the old pigeon loft, now used for storage, and a deck with a view of San Pablo Bay, where Jay Robin would sit, night or day.
"He liked to look at the stars; he liked to look at the sunset," Marjo said. "He liked to watch the birds come home."
Jay Robin Sparrow is survived by his parents, two brothers and a sister. Another sister died in 2001.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760.